A Glimpse Into New York City History: Remembering 9/11

What was it like working in a NYC Newsroom on 9/11?

I was in the middle of writing an email when the executive producer of investigations walked past my office.

“Did you see? A plane hit the World Trade Center,” he said.

I turned towards the TV in my office and like everyone else, saw a distant shot of what appeared to be a small plane jammed into the building. Of course, this was no ordinary building, so the size of the plane was skewed. I ended my email right there, “have to run.. a plane hit World Trade Center.”

When I ran into the newsroom, a crowd had already started gathering around the assignment desk. This was central command in our newsroom and all photographers and reporters were dispatched from this location. The assignment desk managers were frantically trying to find out who was where, which photographers were closest, and which reporters could go live. We covered it like any other big news story, until the second plane hit 15 minutes later.

I didn’t see it, but I knew something big happened. I heard screams and loud moans echo throughout the newsroom. It was a sound you’d hear in a horror movie, when the audience is caught off guard by the killer.

Someone yelled, “Another plane hit the towers.”

I turned around and saw the damage on TV.

Most journalists see gruesome sights throughout their careers, so we tend to believe we are thicker-skinned when the unexpected occurs. But no skin was thick enough for this. At that moment, most of us quietly suspected New York was under attack. When the severity of this event hit, I took a minute to make two important phone calls. It was 6am in California, and she answered the phone half-asleep.

“Helloooo,” she said, unsure who was on the other end.

“Don’t worry, I’m okay.” I said.

My sister didn’t know what had happened until I told her New York was under attack. She always warned me, “You need to be careful, more rational when you’re in the field. You can’t just go out there trying to chase everything.”

We both lost our mother to cancer five years earlier, and I knew inside my heart, she always worried about losing me too. As much as I ignored her pleas in Miami and Phoenix, I knew this time was different.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m not going into the field. I’m in the safest place right now.”

I honestly believed it and that’s why I had to call my girlfriend before she got to her bosses.

My girlfriend followed me to New York City with dreams of becoming a big-time reporter. In September 2001, she was working at a small cable news channel in suburbia. It wasn’t New York City, but it was the closest someone with her experience could get. I quickly dialed her cell phone, but before I had a chance to say anything, she stopped me.

“I’m going to New York,” she said.

“No, you’re not,” I fired back. “We don’t know how bad this could become. Stay there. It’s safe.”

I knew my girlfriend wanted to be in the center of all action because she yearned to report on the biggest stories of her time, but I had to convince her to stay in that sheltered, distant, safe, newsroom in Westchester.

It didn’t matter, though, because by now, no one was making it into the City. Within twenty minutes, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey shut down all tunnels and bridges leading into Manhattan. While it was needed for our city’s security, it also put our news department at a disadvantage. Many of our reporters, producers and photographers weren’t in the city yet, and that meant our newsroom wasn’t fully staffed to cover the biggest story so far of my generation. One of the photographers next to the assignment desk was Tom Cooke.

I used to call Tom the “wise old man.” He had a daughter in high school he always bragged about, and a wife we rarely heard about. Tom was the photographer at WNBC who saw and lived through it all. Whenever the main anchors reported in the field, Tom Cooke was the photographer assigned to make their stories look great. Of all my coworkers, he and I bonded the most. As he left that morning for what were still burning buildings, I remember yelling his name, “Tom.”

He didn’t look for me. It was almost instinctual where the voice came from because he narrowed in on me in a nanosecond. He was wearing a baseball cap that looked like it had already been through a war, even though, in all likelihood, he had just worn it to work everyday for the past few years.

When Tom turned around, I said what came from my heart, “be careful.” And in typical Tom-like-fashion, he cracked a joke about how we were going to get Mexican food later at my favorite restaurant, Mi Nidito. I thought it was a little sign that he believed he was coming back and we were going to talk about it later over margaritas.

“The Pentagon’s been hit,” another person yelled. “It just crossed the wires.”

With no video of this impact, we could only assume the worst -even our national defense was vulnerable.

I looked around the newsroom and could see a glaze over many people’s eyes. It was a look of unbelief, uncertainty, confusion, even fear. And even though the public entrusts the media to inform them of all new developments, the truth is, we didn’t know what was happening that day. President Bush later addressed the country, saying America suffered an “apparent terrorist attack,” but no one knew if the worst was behind us or still on its way. When I worked in Miami and covered hurricanes as a producer, I discovered how water helped bring sense out of chaos. I’m not sure how it works, but in times of stress, drinking water somehow allowed my mind to focus better. I guess based on instinct, I pulled another person aside and said, “Help me bring water into the newsroom.”

Together we dragged boxes of bottled water from every managers’ office into the newsroom. Many news staffers were still walking without purpose.

Next to the assignment desk are several television sets always tuned to different channels- CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, MSNBC. I positioned myself there to monitor what the national outlets were saying. Yes, even we in the media, learned what was happening that day through the television. A new clue was revealed to our newsroom by another newsroom.

“CNN is reporting another plane down in Pennsylvania,” I yelled across the newsroom.

We hadn’t seen any video yet, so our newsroom could only assume the worst. The hijackers were still out there.

You could almost hear another gasp for air. When will this stop? When will it end? I know I wasn’t the only person thinking that.

Fifteen minutes later, it did end. Time stopped and for what seemed like an eternity, the newsroom became eerily still and silent.

The south tower of the World Trade Center looked like it was starting to collapse. No one pointed it out. I think instinct just took over for each person, as we all started to notice the building didn’t intuitively seem right. It was wobbly.

“Guys pull out, pull out, pull out,” our assignment desk manager, Peter McGowan, yelled into the radio phones. He called each photographer by name, hoping they could hear his warning.

No answer.

“Pull out, do you copy? Pull out.”

Still, no answer. Then it happened.

It took seconds. I swear it felt like hours.

Everyone held his breath. Some looked down. Others looked away. A few stared at the TV in disbelief, unsure if their eyes were telling the whole truth.

The first tower was gone and a plume of smoke slowly billowed in its place. Searching for guidance, I looked at the person in charge of our newsroom-my news director, Dianne Doctor. She was an emblem of strength, a pillar of cement, that –to me– could withstand anything. As the person who hired me as Executive Producer less than a year earlier, she was my mentor and advocate.

Even though Dianne is probably 5′ 4″, I saw her stand up to the strongest voices and talk down to the most powerful reporters. I never imagined, nor wondered, about her fear, until that morning. In almost slow motion, I watched as she looked down at her feet and slowly shook her head. Her right hand moved up to her forehead and for the first time, I saw a compassionate, concerned mother who expressed uncertainty.

Our assignment managers continued going one by one down the phone list, calling photographers by name.

Still no answer. Other managers tried to reach reporters who only moments earlier had described the scene for our viewers on live TV. But all cell signals were dead.

We may not have been at war at that moment, but for practical purposes, the news leaders and commanders of WNBC were no longer in communication with their field soldiers. Our feet were now flat. We could only hope they got out.

Twenty minutes later, any hope left began to wane as the north tower started to shake.

Then it collapsed and WNBC went off the air. We didn’t know why but we kept working, even though we weren’t sure if people at home were watching.

We later learned the north tower held transmission signals for nearly every local television station, and for those homes that didn’t have cable, their on-air reception ended when that tower collapsed.

In the middle of this chaos, the President of WNBC, Dennis Swanson, addressed our small newsroom. Most staff members listened intently for any words of certainty. Swanson is a former marine, a giant in physical and psychological presence. He opened by saying our government was going to kick the ass of whoever was responsible. Swanson sounded like a man in a foxhole, until he said our building, Rockefeller Plaza, was now considered a terrorist target. He told us we were all free to go home. And if we agreed to stay, he said, we were working as volunteers.

“What? Did the government tell him something he’s not sharing?” I thought.

I probably wasn’t the only one in that newsroom wondering if he knew more than he was sharing. As journalists, every person in that room was trained to question motives. We were natural cynics who questioned authority for a living. Why would Swanson say we were free to go home? Was our building already on the radar of some plane currently flying towards Midtown? Even though the federal government had ordered all planes grounded, no one knew if more planes were still in the air.

“Are you staying?” I asked him. He looked me in the eyes and stated firmly, “Yes, I am.” There was no hesitation in his voice, so I assumed his speech was a liability protection put in place by our parent company, General Electric.

The NBC network took over our local coverage later that morning, allowing our small staff to catch a breath. Our assignment desk slowly accounted for every photographer, producer and reporter in the field, except for William Steckman, an engineer working in the North Trade Tower. He didn’t make it out. I didn’t know him personally, but nearly every engineer in our newsroom did. I couldn’t help but think of his children and the pain I knew they were going through at that moment.

Much of that day is still a blur. I’ve asked a few coworkers what they remember from that day, and it seems most just recall sporadic highlights. My memory is no different. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism that kicks in to protect us during traumatic events, or maybe I, like everyone else that day, just remember what I need to remember.

As the Executive Producer of Special Projects, I did some writing that day and helped coordinate video that came into our newsroom. As we approached our 5pm newscast, I asked the show’s producer, Hugo Balta, what he needed help with. He asked me to write the newscast opening.

I grabbed an open computer. That day moved so quickly, I still hadn’t called my family in Arizona and California, so I decided to send my sister a quick email.

“I can’t believe what I’m about to write. The World Trade Center is gone,” I wrote to her.

It was a moment of reflection, and even though our viewers would never hear or read that personal email, I put aside my feelings and began to write the opening for that historic newscast.

“It is a horrific scene, New York City and America under attack. One airplane crashes into the World Trade Center. Minutes later a second plane flies directly into the last remaining tower. It’s impact was too much for the building to sustain as both buildings collapsed in front of a world audience holding its breath. Those closest to the scene run for protection. Tonight a city is buried in debris, a skyline that once defined New York City, changed forever.”

Nearly ten years later, I see how that skyline is constantly changing, and I’ve learned one building won’t ever define New York or its people.

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